JACK TAKES A WALK
Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved
Jack takes a walk to the pub.
He traipses, loafs, lollops and occasionally stumbles from the top of Nunhead hill, pausing to take in the City skyline, a small figure crushed by the scale of towers, affirming the idea of a great distances and big facades -- high hopes which belong to other people and which are too far away.
Better to go to the pub, then, down the hill, past the station, and along Nunhead Lane. It's a journey Jack takes every day. But today is different because when he gets to the pub… someone will kill him.
Jack coughs. It's not the hark-kark-kark of a man with a cold or flu -- or even of a man who is simply clearing his throat because he has something to say -- although in his own way Jack does. It is a deep, resonant rumble from within lungs caked with the grime of countless roll-up cigarettes, and the gaseous residue of hundreds, thousands, of barrels of beer bought over the years. There follows a crackling sound as mucus dances with burst blood vessels at the centre of the man's creaky bellows.
It's fitting that Jack lives opposite the cemetery in Nunhead, south east London -- an obscure area known mainly for the vast 51-acre necropolis established in the mid-1880s on what was then an idyllic hillside overlooking the capital. It was a Victorian theatre of mortality - expensive at the front, while at the back, the poor, in their cheap graves, would strain to hear the awakening trumpet blast.
Jack, though, hears nothing except, in his imagination, the bolts of the pub opening, welcoming him into a different sort of heaven. One where all the palaver can be forgotten, the ugliness and boredom ("there's nuffink on the telly"), not to mention the death threats from people who inspire dread and panic amongst those who get on their their bad side -- not that they have a good side -- all of whom want money owed to them by Jack, want it bad enough to carve him open if only they could find time to get around to it, so busy are they cutting and beating other unfortunates.
But four or five pints of premium lager -- for starters -- will put those fuckers where they belong, at the back of Jack's mind along with all the other bollocks.
The sky grows darker -- as it always does in stories like this, in which themes of decay, anomie and violence, which inform the impending sense of doom, hang like black clouds.
Jack makes his way into Nunhead Lane, the main thoroughfare of this former hamlet near its big sister Peckham, to which daytripping 18th- and 19th-century Londoners made the short trip for some peace and quiet. Now, any remaining charm is reserved solely for those psychogeographers who marvel at and revel in the untrammeled urbanity, and unreconstructed grime that has grown unabated and untended through the industrial centuries. Inaccessible enough to have avoided gentrification, Nunhead now rots forgotten, populated by a working class who, echoing the stasis of their environment, have somehow missed out on being updated to the underclass. It is one of the only places in London where the pubs haven't been transformed into bars with stripped floors, sofas, a wine list, and no smoking area. They remain boozers pure and simple, a fading testament to times past, and water passed in the form of piss up against the proverbial wall - and smelling much the same.
Jack lives in and walks though a place with, as they say, too much reality, and thus doesn't even blink at the local landmarks. The place that local kids call "the ghost house", for instance, with its open doorway, damp torn wallpaper covering large holes, through which scuttle crab-like creatures while upstairs is dominates by a large iron bed somehow overgrown with green grass, like a post-modern artwork making a point about the indominatable spirit of nature and wildness; how the city will one day be reclaimed. Or the many kebab shops selling calories to people like Jack, society's passers-by with deep-fried dreams and scabrous fantasies trembling forever on the verge of coherence. Or the other leprous shops, with flats above, buildings smashed, graffiti-ed and lurching towards and away from one another, as though they have been frozen in the act of collapse -- like blackened teeth in a mouth which had been repeatedly punched.
Jack's cough reminds him that he needs, is dying for, a cigarette to alleviate an itch in both the nicotine-starved bloodstream -- it has been six minutes since he flicked away the remains of his last roll-up -- and in the very soul itself, providing relief from a hideous nameless yearning that expresses itself in discomfort and confusion beyond mere physical parameters, an almost existentialist burnout which richer folk can treat as they would a thirst, slaking it by drinking at the modern day spa restorative of most forms of ennui: the shop. There, salvation lies in the purchase of Cds and trainers -- often produced by a small, undernourished boy in China named Chaing. Such a spree provides respite from disassociation, disorder and the need to ask questions, testing questions about the lack of progress in important areas such as jobs, relationships, health, life, everything... for two days or so before another trip to the shop is necessary. Jack, though, doesn't have the disposable cash for such dead gifts to the self. He has cigarettes, which he scrounges, steals, begs or, more simply and sadly, for which he sets aside a hefty proportion of his measly dole money - or crime money, or call centre money, or security guard money… or money which he has borrowed and not payed back.
Down Nunhead Lane, Death walks at Jack's heel, following him to a place where even angels can relax into the deterioration and float in the void.
But, whoa, is that…? Could it be? Up ahead! -- Jack can't bring himself to say the name of the person who, if he is unlucky enough to meet, will certainly slice and chop and gouge. Pound, and thump and jump. Jack tries to shrink into the background -- as though his presence on this earth is not minuscule enough already. "Nah, that's not him," Jack breathes a sigh of relief and proceeds -- rather cockily now -- on his journey. A few hundred yards. A few thousand breathes. To go.
But if not a debtor, then who will kill Jack, now ensconced, although not safely, in the smoggy boozer? Perhaps one of those he has already passed on his journey? The woman, fuelled by dope, drink and the realisation that it's always going to be like this, who screams during a domestic, "Go on then, kill me"? The road rager spluttering, "Don't mess with me, don't mess with me - if I had my gat wi'me you'd be dead, man…"? The thin woman in her slippers with the desperate look of someone who gets few opportunities for laughter? The girl walking, mouth open, twisted, silently crying? Or will it be one of the ordinary, decent people who don't like to make a fuss, don't like to make any bother?
Into his subconscious, Jack has assimilated each and every one of them -- fellow travellers along the margins of life, where melancholy and exuberance battle it out on a daily basis.
It's a half-remembered dream, this journey, come to an end now in the pub, where death comes for Jack in the form, it turns out, of his fag and pint. Taking a puff and a sip, Jack clutches his chest in collapse as his heart revs up to the point where the giddy dribbles over into the riotous -- the cells of the organ a massive interconnecting doodle full of blobs, blurs and streaks of red with hidden centres of sensation amongst the tangle and tide of essence which now breaks, ebbs and, so this is the human condition, stops.
Jack coughs no more after having journeyed to a death by his own yellow-fingered hand in a place where he truly belongs -- a place whose historical fabric he is interwoven with, where he is part of everything that has happened and everything that will come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Cabut, has written on popular culture for the NME, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph magazine, ZigZag, Vague, Offbeat, Comic Strip magazine, Hello!, travel site Hotbunk and Siren mag. Pen names include Richard North. Richard also published his own punk mag Kick, played in punk rock band Brigandage (album: Pretty Funny Thing), and worked with handicapped kids as Arts, drama and literary worker at the Hackney Community Workshop. He has been interviewed by countless fanzines, pirate shows, The Face, LWT etc. He currently works for the BBC, writes fiction, cycles around London and takes photographs.